In the South, where I grew up, we were often defined by our hospitality -- our church potlucks and family reunions, our luncheons and book clubs. A woman was nothing if she was not a proper hostess, and I admired my mother's ability to quickly organize a soiree. I often found these social opportunities a bit dry, however -- lacking in authenticity somehow. These hostesses, I realized, were sometimes just going through the motions.
I also wanted to be hospitable to others, but I wanted it to be real -- an authentic expression of our shared humanity.
As I grew older, I began to understand my personal disconnect with the hospitality of the Old South. I did not identify with the stuffy tea parties and get-togethers thrown out of either obligation or a need to impress. I did not feel compelled to follow the assumed rules and roles of social decorum -- hostess gifts, thank-you cards, and the like -- unless, of course, they came from my heart, as opposed to obligations set in place by the pressures of Southern culture.
I desired to be hospitable within my home and my heart, and struggled to find a way to accomplish this, in light of my previous experiences.
Someone entered my life that has solved this struggle about true hospitality. Over the course of the last six years, I've been unbelievably lucky to have a friend who has taught me more about the "generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests," as Merriam-Webster put it, than I had previously learned over a lifetime.
When we met, we each had two kids the same ages -- age three, and newborn -- which for moms is as great a foundation for future camaraderie as one can possibly hope.
My friend, whose name is Helms, lived on the West Side of Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband Greg and their two boys, while I lived on the North End, closer to the arts district, with my growing family. We were introduced by a friend who knew of my longing for true and intentional friendships. I'm not sure my friend could have ever known just how much I would benefit from her heartwarming definition of community and hospitality.
Helms and her husband Greg live in a way that has challenged me and left me bettered by our time together. I am always looking for ways to incorporate their way of life into my own home. For 11 years, they have lived out of what they term a "Hospitality House" in an area of town previously feared and ignored by most city residents. In spite of this, their door is almost always unlocked, and their yard is bursting with neighborhood kids filling the air with laughter and other sounds of joyous play.
I've watched as they host meals for the kids on Wednesday nights and for the entire neighborhood a few Fridays a month, with an open-door policy every night in between. There is never an expectation of thank-you gifts or accolades. My friend's family shows hospitality not to meet a social obligation, but to meet the needs of others in the community. They often find their own needs are met as well, through these meaningful and otherwise unlikely friendships.
This open-door hospitality has changed my previous definition of being open and hospitable. It has encouraged me to welcome people warmly and kindly, despite what I may have to give, and despite what others may or may not give in return. The true goal is simply relationships -- and love rooted in all we might discover that we have in common, no matter how different we are.
Maybe I have the best of both worlds. The mores of my southern roots built within me a foundational understanding of the importance of having an open home. And through Helms, I have realized that I, too, am capable of genuine interaction, by adopting this family's goal of living hospitably day in and day out -- even when it's exhausting or inconvenient.
This new definition of hospitality is not about me. It is not about making sure my needs are being met or that I am being filled by the compliments of others. This new hospitality empowers me to give though I may not receive, to love though it may not be returned.
My current neighborhood in Charlotte is different from the West End where my friends still reside, but the lesson is the same. When we make our homes and our lives more accessible to others, we are giving generously through compassion and authenticity, and embracing unique opportunities to be our true selves. This is the way I want to live -- and this is the hospitality I've long wanted.